Stephen Howard Woodwind - Repairs, reviews, advice, tips and tales...
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals
Notes from a small workshop - anecdotes & musings from the workbench
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals

The bass saxophone



The bass saxophone is truly the Diva of musical instruments. Its size and rarity means that wherever it chooses to find itself it will always be the centre of attention - if only because it's so damn large you can't possible fail to miss it!

When one such instrument came into the workshop for a major service it required me to first find a space in which to stand it. This is no mean feat in my workshop - which, although not small, tends to be rather cluttered...what with assorted instrument cases jostling for position amongst the various bits and pieces I've picked up from here and there, mostly on the pretext that they look as though they might be useful once I've found time to tinker with them.

Working on a bass sax is an experience all of its own - combining equal measures of pleasure and pain.
The pleasure comes from being able to work to a larger scale. There are no fiddling little keys on a bass, if you drop one on the floor you're more likely to fall over it than have to crouch down on your hands and knees in an effort to find it. Everything is so much more spacious, even the tools required to carry out the repairs are, on the whole, larger and so much easier to handle. The pain comes from having to heft the thing about.
I don't suppose anyone's ever counted how many times a repairer has to lift and turn a sax in the course of a repair, and why should they...it's of no significance - until you find a bass sax on the bench (or rather, half on the bench, half on the floor), at which time the prospect of having to lift it up and turn it over again and again becomes so physically demanding that frequent tea-breaks are required in order to keep up one's constitution.
Yet more pain is inflicted by virtue of the springs. A stripped bass bristles like a porcupine - one careless movement, one ill-considered grip and you're chastised with a dirty great needle spring plunging into your finger.
Anticipating this, I'd wisely stuck a strip of sellotape over the slot of my swear box - thus saving myself a small fortune.

The clients appreciate the stature of such a formidable instrument too - their entry into the workshop changes from the usual 'Hello, I've come to drop off my clarinet/sax/flute' to 'Hello, I've...ooh what on earth is THAT??' - and it seems to me that my reputation takes on a small shine merely by virtue of being associated with such a grand and stately member of the saxophone family.

If there's an art to fixing a bass saxophone, it's approximation.
The sheer size of the keys coupled with the softness of the brass they're made of means that you have to take into account the 'spring' in the action (this is true of all keyed woodwind instruments, though the smaller they get the less critical it becomes). The problem increases exponentially with the age of the instrument - where the design makes no concessions to the phenomenon and time has played havoc with the stiffness of the keys...if it even existed in the first place.
You find yourself having to set the action up in such a manner that, in theory, it ought to leak like a sieve - and yet in practice it works, somehow.
This is perhaps why I see so few bass saxes in for repair (ignoring the fact that they're rare, of course) - they just seem to keep on going, regardless of condition.

I'd arranged with the client to deliver the sax once it had been repaired. It just so happened that he had a gig in a nearby village, and what with him living many miles away from the workshop it seemed sensible for me to drop in on him at the gig and hand over the completed saxophone. It would save him a journey, and provide me with an excuse to nip out for a couple of pints (and to see the client working in a professional capacity).
The gig was in a club in Alresford - and the only directions given were the name of the club and the street in which it resided. I figured it would be difficult to find - out here in the sticks you don't really expect a village jazz club to have a huge flashing neon sign outside - and as it turned out I was right, and so spent a good half hour driving back and forth along a dark road with my head out of the window, desperately trying to hear the faint sounds of jazz emanating from a nearby building.
I'd certainly picked the wrong night - the fair was in town, and all I could hear was the cacophony of loud music and screams from half a mile up the road (sounds like one of MY gigs).

I took a chance, and drove up small road that looked like something might be at the end of it - and found a vaguely club-like building. I knew I'd got the right place - just behind the glass door stood a chap with an unfeasibly bushy white beard. I thus knew two things - that jazz could be found here, along with real ale.
It took me a good few minutes to carefully wrestle the bass sax out of the car. It didn't have a case, so I'd laid it on the back seat and secured it with the seatbelts - and like so many things in life, it was a great deal easier putting it in than it was taking it out (children, ask your father what this means) and as I made my way into the club I was greeted by the unfeasibly bushy white beard, who opened the door for me. Yes folks, a bass sax really does open doors for you.
Upstairs I heard the sound of the band closing a number...and with perfect timing I entered the room to silence.

There was an uproarious cheer from the crowd, followed by a round of applause!
Never before have I felt my craft to be so appreciated - though upon later reflection I reckon they must have thought I was a member of the band who'd made it late to the venue due to the difficulty in finding the bloody place.

Having deposited the sax by the bandstand I made a hasty beeline for the bar, there to settle down with a pint and listen to my client doing his stuff.
The band was a five piece outfit, plus a singer. I would hesitate to say they were a New Orleans jazz band, the feel was rather closer to the grand hotel bands of the 20s and 30s - a style of music no less valid when you consider the number of stalwart players that cut their musical teeth playing for the well-to-do in such bands back in the distant past.
I can honestly say that I've not listened to a great deal of this sort of music, and I think this appears to have been an oversight. I suppose there's a tendency to consider this sort of jazz as being twee - perhaps because, to the modern jazz lover, it appears unchallenging. I think that's a mistake - if you sit and listen you become aware of the fact that the style of music gives the player nowhere to hide. It's patently melodic, with very little of the dissonance and tension that came with the later forms of jazz - if you play a wrong note, it really does sound like a wrong note rather than something you might have meant to hit.
And it's certainly not unchallenging from a player's perspective, you need a very concise command of the scales coupled with the ability to lay out a very connected line that has to run the entire length of your solo. I very rapidly gave up any idea of being able to sit in on a number or two - and I can think of a great many more advanced players who'd keep a respectful distance.

The band struck up with 'Exactly like you', and my client had strapped himself (quite literally) to the bass sax in readiness for a solo.
I have never gotten over the sense of impending doom that comes from seeing a client play an instrument I've just serviced. In the back of your mind there's always that worry that you've forgotten or missed something, and that you're about to face your worst nightmare...something dropping off the horn halfway through a solo - followed by the entire audience turning to look at you with evident disdain.
Thankfully it didn't happen, and a fine solo was played, which also netted a round of applause.

I was in for a bit of a surprise though.
Most people's perception of a bass instrument is that it fulfils two chief roles - it either sits at the back of the band and pumps out a jolly bass line, or it occasionally features in a solo number to which the term 'novelty' can be reasonably applied. I was quite amazed then when the band struck up a slow ballad and the bass sax took a solo. I think the overwhelming impression was that of wistfullness. The bass sax is, in fact, a crooner - as mellifluous as any of Bing Crosby's best boo-boo-booing, and with a lightness of tone that belies its great size.

Naturally, a lot of this is due to the player.
On this occasion it was one Richard White. I've been fixing this chap's horns for over 20 years now, and although I've heard him play in the workshop many times, and even heard some of his recordings, I'd never before seen him playing live. Richard has an impressive technique, coupled with a collection of instruments and a style of playing that's as close to the original setup and sound of the period as it's possible to get. His alto playing is full of glorious bends that so few players make use of these days, and on clarinet the speed and dexterity with which he handles the instrument is quite something to hear - as is the tone. Clarinettists in the know will be even more impressed with fact that Richard uses a Clinton system clarinet (a sort of modified simple system).
I watched as people danced to the band, and that in itself is something quite special...when was the last time you saw people dancing to a jazz band?

After the gig I noticed a small group of men clustered around the bass sax, sitting on its stand centre stage. They looked exactly like the small crowd of men that gather round vintage E-Type Jaguars outside country pubs - prodding and poking, standing back with hand on hips to take in the magnificent sight, asking all manner of (to us) damn fool questions (Is that a Euphonium then?).
The bass sax stood there; tall, proud and aloof - if it could have acknowledged the interest paid to it, it might have done so with a Baroque wave of the hand and a faintly disinterested smile. And I briefly wondered whether we own bass saxophones, or they own us.

 


Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015